A tennis match as seen from one side of the net.
In all my years on a tennis court, I can’t remember ever being so nervous. As a player who never once managed to crack the Top 50, I’d become accustomed to the lifestyle of a journeyman player. The best of the best - the Federers and Nadals and Tavillas of the world - traveled on private jets, stayed in the best hotels, and played to sold-out crowds in the biggest stadiums.
Me, on the other hand, I fly coach. I stay in economy hotels, usually near the airports. If I’m lucky, I might play a match in the grandstand every once in a while, but I’m usually playing on the challenger courts and exiting in the first or second round of a tournament. Being here in the main stadium was a surreal feeling, especially playing a third-round evening match against Oswald Tavilla, the number one player in the world.
Against all odds, I had managed to hold my serve throughout the first set. No breaks in my favor, but none in his either. We played each other to a tiebreaker; the first person to at least seven points (while leading by two) would win the set.
He aced his first serve, giving him a quick lead.
On my serve, he returned the first with a cross-court forehand winner, and then caught me off-guard on the second with a backhand drop shot that I couldn’t chase down in time.
His next two serves were a blistering 130 MPH zinger that I just barely got a racket on and dumped into the net, and a topspin heavy serve that I misjudged, returning long.
And just like that, I was down 0-5 in the tiebreak. Tavillas was two points away from taking the first set. And it didn’t take a genius (or a tennis statistician) to figure out that Tavilla’s 90% win rate after taking the first set meant that if I didn’t come back in a big way now, I probably wouldn’t be coming back at all.
I squinted against the bright lights of the stadium and wiped sweat from my brow with my soaked wristbands. It was now or never. I needed to start thinking outside the box.
On my next serve, rather than trying to go down the middle like I usually did, I went out wide and painted the corner of the box. Ace!
I then served the next one into his body a little slower, forcing Tavillas to take a big step back to position himself. As he was lining up his shot, I charged the net and took his return in midair, spiking it back toward him with an overhand volley. Winner!
On Tavillas’ serve, I returned it straight to his body again, catching his backhand at an awkward angle and driving his shot into the net.
I decided to take a risk on his next serve and guessed he was going to serve it out wide. Instead of preparing a backhand, I leaped around the side and fired off a forehand shot at a wicked angle. Tavillas didn’t even try for it as the ball painted the line. Another winner!
People who don’t play tennis will never understand just how quickly fortunes can change in this game. What was an 0-5 deficit now, a few moments later, had me only trailing by one at 4-5. I was three points short of winning the set, but he could also just as easily take it in two.
Tavillas’ next return almost seemed intended to put my optimism in check; he put a wicked amount of topspin on the ball and, while I managed to get it back over the net, it cost me my court positioning and Tavillas effortlessly lobbed the ball back over the net, returning to the baseline without even checking to see if I managed to chase down the ball. We both knew I couldn’t. And, just like that, it was 4-6 and Tavillas had two set points on my serve.
I summoned all of my strength and fired off the strongest serve I possibly could. I was shocked, first to see that Tavillas barely even moved to try and return it, and then when I checked the scoreboard and realized that serve had registered 132 MPH. I did a double-take; a serve that fast was easily a personal record for me. The score was now 5-6, but Tavillas still had another set point and it was his turn to serve.
Tavillas netted his first serve, giving me a rare look at his slower, safer second serve. Or at least what I assumed would be; he instead opted to really go for it and aim for the very edge of the service line. It seemed like he wanted to put away the set right then and there. And I thought it he actually did until I heard the line umpire yell, “Fault!”
I gasped along with the crowd. Tavillas double faults were about as rare as matches he lost. And yet the call now erased the second set point and pulled us even at 6-6.
It was my turn to serve. I tried to send it down the center of the service line but it was just out. Tavillas returned my second serve with interest, but I got a racquet on it and sent it back over the net. He tried for a running forehand but ended up flicking it into the net. It was 7-6. I had the lead and a chance to serve out the first set. I just needed one. more. point.
I took a deep breath to steady myself, and then served it toward the corner of the baseline.
His cross-court return had me stretching to reach it with my backhand.
I sent it back over the net and he lobbed it back to me. I returned it with a deft forehand.
Tavillas send a forehand down the baseline, which I backhanded cross-court.
He rifled a shot back where it came from and another backhand sent it over again.
He tried for a forehand winner but it clipped the top of the net, killing its speed and momentum.
I seized on the opportunity to charge the net and smack a forehand into the corner.
He met it with a backhand but I volleyed and tried to spike the ball.
In the kind of move that only Osward Tavillas could manage, he ran and leapt, swatting the ball high in the air and sending it back over to me.
For anyone else, that should would have no chance of making it back over the net, but Tavillas was a magician with a racquet. I just barely got my own racquet on it and returned it over the net.
Tavillas then tried a drop shot, but I ran to the net and tried to lob it up and over his head.
He chased it down and tried to do the same to me, but I attempted a volley again and got it back to him, the ball speeding toward the corner of the court.
Tavillas managed an amazing backhand that seemed destined to turn my would-be winner into a winner of his own.
It was all I could do to leap off my feet and dive, hoping desperately that I could get a racquet on it.
As the ground rushed up to meet me, I felt the resistance as the ball connected with my racquet. While I was focusing on not breaking my face on the hard court surface, I heard cheers erupt from the crowd.
I assumed Tavillas must have tapped it back over the net where I would never be able to get to it. But as I looked across the court, I saw the ball bouncing on his side of the net. Once. Twice. Three times.
Breathing heavily, I picked myself up and looked at first the scoreboard, then the replay on the Jumbotron. Sure enough, I had managed to just barely tap it over the net before I went crashing to the ground. The score was 8-6, and I had won the first set! Tavillas looked almost impressed as he headed for his chair on the sideline.
Now, before you get all excited and think this is some miraculous underdog prevails kind of story, I should probably tell you that Oswald Tavillas absolutely cleaned my clock for the rest of the match. The final score was 6-76-8, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 and it was, by all accounts, a routine win for the world number one, who went on to win the entire tournament without dropping another set.
While my showing at the tournament wasn’t destined to be more than a blip on anyone’s tennis radar (my ranking wouldn’t change much and a week from now, no one would remember Tavillas’ routine third-round win over a journeyman player), I’ll always remember the time I took that one set off the great Oswald Tavillas at a tournament when no one else could touch him.
Originally written for "A Fistful of Merit Badges" and "I Write in 2018" .